Habs v. Oilers: How this is my personal rivalry

habs v oilers

Because of their long, competitive history, the Montreal Canadiens have had a series of tremendous rivals over the years. Every hockey fan is well aware of the team’s fierce rivalry with the Boston Bruins, and the cultural rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, for me, as a Canadiens fan who grew up in Edmonton, the rivalry between the Habs and the Edmonton Oilers is a personal one, and is a matchup that I eagerly look forward to every year.

In the early 1990s, as a young elementary school kid, I grew up as a massive fan of the Montreal Canadiens. I was young, naïve and impressionable, and Patrick Roy became my hero, and la Soiree du Hockey was my weekly window into the cathedral. My wall was adorned with posters of the Habs netminder, and I even had an autographed picture of him that I received in the mail. In those days, Les Canadiens were exotic, and that heightened their appeal for me. Their games were broadcast in a different language, they had a deep and rich history, and the terms used to describe the club were ethereal…. La Sainte Flanelle, Les Glorieux, le Tricolore, the Lions in Winter. My schooling was primarily in French, and subsequently, many of the children’s stories that we read in school were set in Quebec and in Montreal. The city absolutely fascinated me, and I loved looking at historic pictures of Montreal. Even as a kid, I dreamed of what life would be like living in La Metropole, and it’s apartments with the winding stairways, it’s Cassecroûtes and depanneurs and the spontaneous hockey games on the street. I wanted to be at the Forum on a Saturday night, and be part of all the traditions that I saw from afar on television.

habs painting (image above is The Red Staircase by Carole Spandau, http://www.carolespandau.com/)

I bought into the lore of the Canadiens, and the city, and unlike most other kids my age in Edmonton, I was different. Naturally, they were fans of the hometown Oilers. I grew up watching hockey at a time when the Oilers dynasty years were coming to an end, and the first (and to this day, continuous?) rebuild started. To all my friends, I represented the Montreal Canadiens, and this association seemed to embolden my love for the club. When the Canadiens lost, I would hear it at school the next day. And if the Canadiens lost to the Oilers, well I’d hear it for weeks. I remember my dad taking me to Northlands Coliseum almost annually to watch the Habs against the Oilers. It was the one date that I had circled on the calendar. Even in my youth, I remember feeling nervous energy on those nights, hoping that the Canadiens would help preserve my dignity for the next day. The rink always appeared to be half-full of Canadiens fans, and it was a magical experience to see all those players I watched from afar with French commentary, right in front of me. Incredibly, on some of those occasions, because the Oilers were a weak team, I would not get to see Patrick Roy in action, and was forced to endure an Andre Racicot appearance.

For me, the Bruins and the Leafs are still the teams that I loathe above all, and victories over them give me immense satisfaction. But those wins against the Oilers, well they give me immense bragging rights over the majority of my friends. Given the relative infrequency at which the teams play nowadays, the bragging rights seem to extend for much of the season. I absolutely love those nights, and this month, we have two such meetings. The first will be Thursday night in Edmonton. The Oilers will visit the Bell Centre on 22 October.

Despite the fact that the Canadiens and Oilers have arguably two of the best dynasties in hockey history (the Canadiens of the 70s, and the Oilers of the 80s), the two teams have never been major hockey rivals. They had one playoff meeting in 1981, when the veteran, experienced and ultimately, declining Canadiens were swept by the underdog, upstart Oilers in three games, including two emphatic wins at the Forum. The series was famous for Canadiens netminder, Richard Sevigny, proclaiming that Guy Lafleur would have Wayne Gretzky in his back pocket.

10 years ago, the Oilers held the NHL’s first ever outdoor game and hosted the Montreal Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium. The actual game was largely forgettable, but there were some iconic images, namely Jose Theodore’s tuque, and some players sporting balaclavas to fend off the cold weather. It also proved to the league that outdoor games were marketable as festivals, and the NHL continues to exploit that idea to this day.

In 2009, the Canadiens were expected to contend for the Stanley Cup in their 100th year, after winning the Eastern conference the season before. The season promptly derailed after the new year, and in February, after a blowout loss to the Calgary Flames, then coach Guy Carbonneau tried to break the team out of the funk by taking them bowling in Edmonton. The Oilers, amidst all their own struggles, crushed the Canadiens 7-2. Carbonneau was fired a month later.

Historically, in 75 games between the two clubs, each team has 34 wins and four ties, with the Canadiens more recently claiming three overtime/shootout wins. However, the Canadiens appear to fare poorly in traveling to Edmonton. All-time they are 18-20-0-2 in Edmonton, but since 2001/02, in nine games, the Canadiens are 2-7-0, and have been outscored 40-28. Maybe it was my nerves at the time, but it always appeared to me that the Canadiens were much more erratic, and shell-shocked in those games. In fact, as of late, it appears that the Canadiens trips to Western Canada have taken on that flavourI could never understand why. Perhaps it was the fact that the home teams feel the energy of the crowd, with a sizable number of Canadiens fans filling the rink, and they bring their best performance. Or maybe the relatively long travel, and the occasional back-to-back games leave the Canadiens with little in the tank. Or maybe, it is just the Roxy Flu?

This year’s matchup between the two teams will be eagerly anticipated by more than the usual because both teams are made up of some exceptional young talent, at the centre of which are junior teammates Nail Yakupov and Alex Galchenyuk, who will square off against one another for the first time in the NHL. With much hope placed on the youngsters of both teams, and the Yakupov-Galchenyuk individual battle, I am excited that this rivalry will extend beyond just a personal rivalry for me, and will become a legitimate hockey rivalry, much like the Habs/Bruins or Habs/Leafs, in the years to come.

– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada

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